Sir Patrick Spens
: Tales From Scottish Ballads
"The king sits in Dunfermline town,
Drinking the blude-red wine;
'O whare will I get a skeely skipper,
To sail this new ship o' mine?'
* * * * *
Half owre, half owre to Aberdour,
'Tis fifty fathoms deep,
And there lies gude Sir Patrick Spens,
Wi' the Scots lords at his feet."
Now hearken to me, all ye who love old stories, and I will tell you how
one of the bravest and most gallant of Scottish seamen came by his
'Tis the story of an event which brought mourning and dule to many a
fair lady's heart, in the far-off days of long ago.
Now all the world knows that his Majesty, King Alexander the Third, who
afterwards came by his death on the rocks at Kinghorn, had one only
daughter, named Margaret, after her ancestress, the wife of Malcolm
Canmore, whose life was so holy, and her example so blessed, that, to
this day, men call her Saint Margaret of Scotland.
King Alexander had had much trouble in his life, for he had already
buried his wife, and his youngest son David, and 'twas no wonder that,
as he sat in the great hall of his Palace at Dunfermline, close to the
Abbey Church, where he loved best to hold his Court, that his heart was
sore at the thought of parting with his motherless daughter.
She had lately been betrothed to Eric, the young King of Norway, and it
was now full time that she went to her new home. So a stately ship had
been prepared to convey her across the sea; the amount of her dowry had
been settled; her attendants chosen; and it only remained to appoint a
captain to the charge of the vessel.
But here King Alexander was at a loss. It was now past midsummer, and in
autumn the Northern Sea was wont to be wild and stormy, and on the
skilful steering of the Royal bark many precious lives depended.
He thought first of one man skilled in the art of seamanship, and then
he thought of another, and at last he turned in his perplexity to his
nobles who were sitting around him.
"Canst tell me," he said, fingering a glass of red French wine as he
spoke, "of a man well skilled in the knowledge of winds and tides, yet
of gentle birth withal, who can be trusted to pilot this goodly ship of
mine, with her precious burden, safely over the sea to Norway?"
The nobles looked at one another in silence for a moment, and then one
of them, an old gray-haired baron, rose from his seat by Alexander's
"Scotland lacks not seamen, both gentle and simple, my Liege," he said,
"who could be trusted with this precious charge. But there is one man of
my acquaintance, who, above all others, is worthy of such a trust. I
speak of young Sir Patrick Spens, who lives not far from here. Not so
many years have passed over his head, but from a boy he has loved the
sea, and already he knows more about it, and its moods, than
white-haired men who have sailed on it all their lives. 'Tis his bride,
he says, an' I trow he speaks the truth, for, although he is as fair a
gallant as ever the eye of lady rested on, and although many tender
hearts, both within the Court, and without, beat a quicker measure when
his name is spoken, he is as yet free of love fancies, and aye bides
true to this changeful mistress of his. Truly he may well count it an
honour to have the keeping of so fair a flower entrusted to him."
"Now bring me paper and pen," cried the King, "and I will write to him
this instant with mine own hand."
Slowly and laboriously King Alexander penned the lines, for in these
days kings were readier with the sword than with the pen; then, folding
the letter and sealing it with the great signet ring which he wore on
the third finger of his right hand, he gave it to the old baron, and
commanded him to seek Sir Patrick Spens without loss of time.
Now Sir Patrick dwelt near the sea, and when the baron arrived he found
him pacing up and down on the hard white sand by the sea-shore, watching
the waves, and studying the course of the tides. He was quite a young
man, and 'twas little wonder if the story which the old baron had told
was true, and if all the ladies' hearts in Fife ached for love of him,
for I trow never did goodlier youth walk the earth, and men said of him
that he was as gentle and courteous as he was handsome.
At first when he began to read the King's letter, his face flushed with
pride, for who would not have felt proud to be chosen before all others
in Scotland, to be the captain of the King's Royal bark? But the smile
passed away almost as soon as it appeared, and a look of great sadness
took its place. In silence he gazed out over the sea. Did something warn
him at that moment that this would prove his last voyage;--that never
again would he set foot in his beloved land?
It may be so; who can tell? Certain it is--the old baron recalled it to
his mind in the sad days that were to come--that, when the young sailor
handed back the King's letter to him, his eyes were full of tears.
"'Tis certainly a great honour," he said, "and I thank his Majesty for
granting it to me, but methinks it was no one who loved my life, or the
lives of those who sail with me, who suggested our setting out for
Norway at this time of year."
Then, anxious lest the baron thought that he said this out of fear, or
cowardice, he changed his tone, and hurried him up to his house to
partake of some refreshment after his ride, while he gave orders to his
seamen to get everything ready.
"Make haste, my men," he shouted in a cheerful, lusty voice, "for a
great honour hath fallen to our lot. His Majesty hath deigned to entrust
to us his much loved daughter, the Princess Margaret, that we may convey
her, in the stately ship which he hath prepared, to her husband's court
in Norway. Wherefore, let every man look to himself, and let him meet me
at Aberdour, where the ship lies, on Sunday by nightfall, for we sail
next day with the tide."
So on the Monday morning early, ere it struck eight of the clock, a
great procession wound down from the King's Palace at Dunfermline to the
little landing-stage at Aberdour, where the stately ship was lying, with
her white sails set, like a gigantic swan.
Between the King and his son, the Prince of Scotland, rode the Princess
Margaret, her eyes red with weeping, for in those days it was no light
thing to set out for another land, and she felt that the parting might
be for ever. And so, in good sooth, it proved to be, in this world at
least, for before many years had passed all three were in their graves;
but that belongs not to my tale.
Next rode the high and mighty persons who were to accompany the Princess
to her husband's land, and be witnesses of the fulfilment of the
marriage contract. These were their Graces the Earl and Countess of
Menteith, his Reverence the Abbot of Balmerino, the good Lord Bernard of
Monte-Alto, and many others, including a crowd of young nobles, five and
fifty in all, who had been asked to swell the Princess's retinue, and
who were only too glad to have a chance of getting a glimpse of other
Next came a long train of sumpter mules, with the Princess's baggage,
and that of her attendants. And last of all, guarded well by
men-at-arms, came the huge iron-bound chests which contained her dowry:
seven thousand merks in good white money; and there were other seven
thousand merks laid out for her in land in Scotland.
Sir Patrick Spens was waiting to receive the Princess on board the ship.
Right courteously, I ween, he handed her to her cabin, and saw that my
Lady of Menteith, in whose special care she was, was well lodged also,
as befitted her rank and station. But I trow that his lip curled with
scorn when he saw that the five and fifty young nobles had provided
themselves with five and fifty feather beds to sleep on.
He himself was a hardy man, as a sailor ought to be, and he loved not to
see men so careful of their comfort.
At last the baggage, and the dowry, and even the feather beds were
stowed away; and the last farewells having been said, the great ship
weighed anchor, and sailed slowly out of the Firth of Forth.
Ah me, how many eyes there were, which watched it sail away, with
husband, or brother, or sweetheart on board, which would wait in vain
for many a long day for its return!
Sir Patrick made a good voyage. The sea was calm, the wind was in his
favour, and by the evening of the third day he brought his ship with her
precious burden safe to the shores of Norway.
"Now the Saints be praised," he said to himself as he cast anchor, "for
the Princess is safe, let happen what may on our return voyage."
In great state, and with much magnificence, Margaret of Scotland was
wedded to Eric of Norway, and great feasting and merry-making marked the
event. For a whole month the rejoicing went on. The Norwegian nobles
vied with each other who could pay most attention to the Scottish
strangers. From morning to night their halls rang with music, and
gaiety, and dancing. No wonder that the young nobles;--nay, no wonder
that even Sir Patrick Spens himself, careful seaman though he was,
forgot to think of the homeward journey, or to remember how soon the
storms of winter would be upon them.
In good sooth they might have remained where they were till the spring,
and then this tale need never have been told, had not a thoughtless
taunt touched their Scottish pride to the quick.
The people of Norway are a frugal race, and to the older nobles all this
feasting and junketing seemed like wild, needless extravagance.
"Our young men have gone mad," they said to each other; "if this goes
on, the country will be ruined. 'Tis those strangers who have done it.
It would be a good day for Norway if they would bethink themselves, and
sail for home."
That very night there was a great banquet, an' I warrant that there was
dire confusion in the hall when a fierce old noble of Royal blood, an
uncle of the King, spoke aloud to Sir Patrick Spens in the hearing of
all the company.
"Now little good will the young Queen's dowry do either to our King or
to our country," he said, "if it has all to be eaten up, feasting a
crowd of idle youngsters who ought to be at home attending to their own
Sir Patrick turned red, and then he turned white. What the old man said
was very untrue; and he knew it. For, besides the young Queen's dowry, a
large sum of money had been taken over in the ship, to pay for the
expenses of her attendants, and of the nobles in her train.
"'Tis false. Ye lie," he said bluntly; "for I wot I brought as much
white money with me as would more than pay for all that hath been spent
on our behalf. If these be the ways of Norway, then beshrew me, but I
like them not."
With these words he turned and left the hall followed by all the
Scottish nobles. Without speaking a word to any of them, he strode down
to the harbour, where his ship was lying, and ordered the sailors to
begin to make ready at once, for he would sail for home in the morning.
The night was cold and dreary; there was plainly a storm brewing. It was
safe and snug in the harbour, and the sailors were loth to face the
dangers of the voyage. But their captain looked so pale and stern, that
everyone feared to speak.
"Master," said an old man at last--he was the oldest man on board, and
had seen nigh seventy years--"I have never refused to do thy bidding,
and I will not begin to-night. We will go, if go we must; but, if it be
so, then may God's mercy rest on us. For late yestreen I saw the old
moon in the sky, and she was nursing the new moon in her arms. It needs
not me to tell thee, for thou art as weather-wise as I am, what that
"Say ye so?" said Sir Patrick, startled in spite of his anger; "then, by
my troth, we may prepare for a storm. But tide what may, come snow or
sleet, come cold or wet, we head for Scotland in the morning."
So the stately ship set her sails once more, and for a time all went
well. But when they had sailed for nigh three days, and were thinking
that they must be near Scotland, the sky grew black and the wind arose,
and all signs pointed to a coming storm.
Sir Patrick took the helm himself, and did his best to steer the ship
through the tempest which soon broke over them, and which grew worse and
worse every moment. The sailors worked with a will at the ropes, and
even the foolish young nobles, awed by the danger which threatened them,
offered their assistance. But they were of little use, and certs, one
would have laughed to have seen them, had the peril not been so great,
with their fine satin cloaks wrapped round them, and carrying their
feathered hats under their arms, trying to step daintily across the
deck, between the rushes of the water, in order that they might not wet
their tiny, cork-heeled, pointed-toed shoes.
Alack, alack, neither feathered hats, nor pointed shoon, availed to save
them! Darker and darker grew the sea, and every moment the huge waves
threatened to engulf the goodly vessel.
Sir Patrick Spens had sailed on many a stormy sea, but never in his life
had he faced a tempest like this. He knew that he and all his gallant
company were doomed men unless the land were near. That was their only
hope, to find some harbour and run into it for shelter.
Soon the huge waves were breaking over the deck, and the bulwarks began
to give way. Truly their case was desperate, and even the gay young
nobles grew grave, and many hearts were turned towards the homes which
they would never see again.
"Send me a man to take the helm," shouted Sir Patrick hoarsely, "while I
climb to the top of the mast, and try if I can see land."
Instantly the old sailor who had warned him of the coming storm, the
night before, was at his side.
"I will guide the ship, captain," he said, "if thou art bent on going
aloft; but I fear me thou wilt see no land. Sailors who are out on their
last voyage need not look for port."
Now Sir Patrick was a brave man, and he meant to fight for life; so he
climbed up to the mast head, and clung on there, despite the driving
spray and roaring wind, which were like to drive him from his foothold.
In vain he peered through the darkness, looking to the right hand and to
the left; there was no land to be seen, nothing but the great green
waves, crested with foam, which came springing up like angry wolves,
eager to swallow the gallant ship and her luckless crew.
Suddenly his cheek grew pale, and his eyes dark with fear. "We are dead
men now," he muttered; for, not many feet below him, seated on the crest
of a massive wave, he saw the form of a beautiful woman, with a cruel
face and long fair hair, which floated like a veil on the top of the
water. 'Twas a mermaid, and he knew what the sight portended.
She held up a silver bowl to him, with a little mocking laugh on her
lips. "Sail on, sail on, my guid Scots lords," she cried, and her sweet,
false voice rose clear and shrill above the tumult of the waves, "for I
warrant ye'll soon touch dry land."
"We may touch the land, but 'twill be the land that lies fathoms deep
below the sea," replied Sir Patrick grimly, and then the weird creature
laughed again, and floated away in the darkness.
When she had passed Sir Patrick glanced down at the deck, and the sight
that met him there only deepened his gloom.
Worn with the beating of the waves, a bolt had sprung in the good ship's
side, and a plank had given way, and the cruel green water was pouring
in through the hole.
Verily, they were facing death itself now; yet the strong man's heart
did not quail.
He had quailed at the sight of the mermaid's mocking eyes, but he looked
on the face of death calmly, as befitted a brave and a good man. Perhaps
the thought came to him, as it came to another famous seaman long years
afterwards, that heaven is as near by sea as by land, and in the thought
there was great comfort.
There was but one more thing to be done; after that they were helpless.
"Now, my good Scots lords," he cried, and I trow a look of amusement
played round his lips even at that solemn hour, "now is the time for
those featherbeds of thine. There are five and fifty of them; odds take
it, if they be not enough to stop up one little hole."
At the words the poor young nobles set to work right manfully,
forgetting in their fear, that their white hands were bruised and
bleeding, and their dainty clothes all wet with sea-water.
Alack! alack! ere half the work was done, the good ship shivered from
bow to stern, and went slowly down under the waves; and Sir Patrick
Spens and his whole company met death, as, in their turn, all men must
meet him, and passed to where he had no more power over them.
So there, under the waters of the gray Northern Sea he rested, lying in
state, as it were, with the Scottish lords and his own faithful sailors
round him; while there was dule and woe throughout the length and
breadth of Scotland, and fair women wept as they looked in vain for the
husbands, and the brothers, and the lovers who would return to them no
And, while the long centuries come and go, he is resting there still,
with the Scots lords and his faithful sailors by him, waiting for a Day,
whose coming may be long, but whose coming will be sure, when the sea
shall give up its dead.